With indie games published by Annapurna Interactive, you can almost always expect the unexpected. That family game with a raccoon swallowing up the countryside? Beneath its cute exterior bears a viciously wry heart. Now, continuing the Annapurna “surprise and delight” tradition is first-person recursive puzzler Maquette, the debut title from San Francisco developers Graceful Decay.

What looks from a distance like a stately, emotionally-detached set of cerebral challenges, is actually quite a bit more. Like Maquette’s primary concept of worlds nested in worlds, embedded in the puzzle game is a hipster millennial romance, complete with an indie-folk soundtrack. Think Manifold Garden meets 500 Days of Summer.

This may sound like a bizarre marriage of ideas, but it actually works well as a way to reflect the evolving relationship of the game’s unseen protagonists Michael and Kenzie (voiced by real-life couple Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard). Tightening the link between story and setting is the fact that Michael and Kenzie bond over dream worlds collaboratively created in Michael’s sketchbook. These fanciful creations are what players experience.

Warning upfront: Michael and Kenzie are divisive characters – peak San Fran hipsters who meet over spilled drinks in a coffee shop, and would rather sit painting together in a park rather than going to a friend’s party. It’s easy to see why they could grate some players. That said, the couple are less insufferable when it comes to depicting lulls and lows in their relationship. These moments have a real-world tang that lingers, and while Maquette has nothing fresh to say about the nature of love, its observations ring true. It’s just a pity that the game focusses on Michael’s development alone, and doesn’t delve into Kenzie’s side of events.

Maquette’s love story still feels like a pleasant bonus, though. People drawn to the game are almost certainly there for the game’s striking puzzle component. It’s a little hard to explain (watch the official gameplay walkthrough below for a better understanding), but, basically, players manipulate miniature building models – the maquettes of the title – to alter their regular-sized equivalent, and vice versa.

It gets a bit more complicated than that. Players can resize objects by “filtering” them through the repeating, nested environments. As an example, a key from the regular-sized world can be dropped into the small, replica world. With changes in the model reflecting instantaneously in reality, that key will suddenly appear super-sized in the regular proportioned universe.

It’s a good thing that Maquette’s game world is so stunning, and appreciably diverse, as there is a lot of back and forth to solving puzzles. It’s also a game that demands your attention. Failure to notice small shifts in your surroundings means you’ll take even longer to progress.

Maquette is a game of reflection, so it’s appropriate then that at a meta-level it prompts the reflection that the best puzzle games never signpost a solution. Gradually and subtly, they prime the player’s thinking to overcome upcoming obstacles. Sadly, Maquette does this very inconsistently, creating a frustrating sense of disconnect at times. A couple of solutions are so obtuse and clunky that you expect to get stuck and have to restart the stage – which you should expect to do a few times during playthrough, anyway. 

Maquette is a three-hour game, but the opaque nature of some puzzles, as well as cumbersome object handling, means you could spend double that duration to complete it.

Still, Maquette is worth attempting if you enjoy puzzle games, or want to play something that forces you to think in very different ways. Just be aware that, like its namesake, it’s a little rough to handle.

As a final example, at one point in the game, Michael muses that post honeymoon phase, Kenzie’s little quirks became less cute, and more annoying. Players will likely have a similar relationship with Maquette itself, continually swinging between highs and lows. The game may lose its charm during a frustrating stretch, then win you over again at the start of a colourful new stage. How much of that seesawing you’re willing to endure will depend on your personality, and level of patience.

Maquette is available now for PS4, PS5 and PC. The game is part of the March PS Plus line-up for PS5 only.

Last Updated: March 8, 2021

Maquette
Romantic relationships have their ups and downs, and players will likely go through the same experience with Maquette, which seesaws between satisfying and frustrating. Charming world design and bittersweet relationship observations are offset by a couple of opaque puzzles and patches of gameplay clunkiness (bad enough to force level restarts), which mar the overall sense of enjoyment.
7.0
/10
Maquette was reviewed on PC
71 / 100

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